Something that has become apparent during this past year as the ground continues to shake beneath us: it feels as though we’re instinctively crouching down in response, throwing out arms in an attempt to steady ourselves by touching anything within reach that is solid and stable, what is familiar, honest and true. I’ve had this feeling for a number of years now, even as I sent out the beautiful pieces of wild salmon from Bologna to Birmingham.
My rocks in these turbulent times are the people who are at one working with nature, examples of humankind locked-in to producing genuine foods that have been developed traditionally from the need to sustain life in their specific geographical contexts. Foods that are hewn from a mountain, or conjured from some secret part of the ocean, preserved with salt, microbes, wood-smoke or the wind. There is a pure and fundamental truth in the hyper-local and seasonal flow of real food production. It is seismic and profound, but the further I go to discover where this real food comes from, the more I notice how rarely these portentous buzz-words are used by the makers themselves.
We look for these terms on the packaging of mainstream food, to see that its contents are local, seasonal and artisan precisely because we value authenticity today, perhaps more than ever. We have been disconnected in this regard, and it makes us an easy target for the marketing vernacular that preys on our inherently trusting nature. The foods that we really seek to reconnect with, are able to do without all these branding concepts and sales strategies by their very virtue of being. By eating them we can reconnect with a world where humans lived in the healthy humility of the natural world where we understood the rules of the mountain and the sea.
I can think of no better examples than the two most viscerally powerful that I have experienced myself- hauling wild Irish salmon from turquoise nets past midnight on the moonlit fishing-boat bobbing river Blackwater, and climbing with a hooked stick amidst an Italian cattle herd with their herdsmen, clattering the cobbles of ancient streets that head deep into the mountain, to a deafening clangour of cowbells. There is a profound chord that links the two, but I will focus on describing the latter: the ancient, pastoral tradition of transhumance. A lifeblood existence, with ancient paths for humans and animals running like veins through our mountain landscapes, defying borders with unwitting irreverence.
A lifeblood existence, with ancient paths for humans and animals running like veins through our mountain landscapes, defying borders with unwitting irreverence.
Each year in May, there is a ripple of mounting energy in the foothills of the Biellese pre-Alps in Piedmont, as saddles are soaped, belts and bells tinkered, and the bustle of tight communities of herdsmen and women is palpable as all eyes turn to the newly-revealed emerald grazing above the treeline of the mountains that loom above them. Winter’s snow has yielded to summer’s sun, and there is mighty good pasture to be had there. The animals are readied for the journey; walnut wood collars for the goats, steam-bent with hand carved meadow flowers from which square bells hang that give a short, dry clank. Around the necks of the cows, hefty leather straps flower-studded with brass rivets, wide enough to hold the weight of a hand-hammered bell the size of a turkey.
Since 2017 I have been making this seasonal 24km trek with a herd of native Pezzata Rossa d’Oropa cattle from Camburzano to Bielmonte in northern Italy, and like Christmas, I always return to it as one of the only constants in the chaos of my year.
Beginning at around three in the morning, herdsmen gather at the farm whose animals are about to make the journey. The cows are hand-milked by the light of head torches in the warm, humid barn, the cheese is made, and bowls of coffee circulate amongst the herdsmen in the cold night outside, frothing first with the warm, fresh milk, followed by the addition of grappa. Roughly one person for every five cows is allocated for the ascent, with herdsmen coming from neighbouring farms to help with the transhumance, each equipped with a stick made locally by a man in his 80s who boils, turns and sets extremely hard tenesca wood into the shape of a tight question mark. One of the most satisfying objects you could hold, these three-foot-long bastun are brandished with one hand to control the cows, guiding them away from back gardens and shop windows, or cars parked along the streets through which the herd moves as the rest of the city sleeps. And when not in use, they hang hooked onto the back of your collar to free up your hands.
I have yet to attend the transhumance without at least one car related incident, but nobody ever complains. It is unfortunate for a door to be caved in, or a wing mirror to get smashed, but it is never blamed on the herdsmen. The owners of the vehicles have grown up with this tradition- in early May you wouldn’t park your car on the main route out of town up into the mountain in the same way you wouldn’t leave it somewhere prone to flooding in the rainy season.
By sunrise, the herd moves through the higher streets of the villages that orbit Biella, the sun burning peachy stucco as day breaks over rickety terracotta-tiled roofs. Faces begin to emerge from windows as they are awoken by the bubbling bells and heady smells of cattle drifting up the walls of steep streets; the townsfolk in dressing gowns peer down from balconies, sometimes with coffee, the proud pizzaiolo in a vest and cigarette puffing baker come out of their kitchens handing some of the first morning’s oven-fresh fare to the herdsmen, and further on, the hairdressers leaning out of their salons with customers mid-perm, all smiles. And a banker (so poignant I’ll never forget), stepping out from his branch to place his hand on one of the cows with child-like serenity, as the herd moves through waiting traffic, straight over roundabouts and up into the first forest.
Every now and again, the herd stops to rest and feed in any small fields or grassy areas that might be available, usually at the back of somebody’s farm, or behind the car park of a supermarket. Here, the herdsmen also take refreshment from the back of a pickup – Nebbiolo country wine poured by the demijohn into crinkly plastic cups, beer or espresso from the nearest bar or café, eating mainly Macagn’ cheese and salame di toro (bull salame), both staple foods that are produced from the same herd and herdsman. And here is one of those elemental moments of grounding as you realise you are being fed, fuelled by the preserved milk and meat of the animals you are moving with, in order to guide those same animals to where they will feed for the coming months and in turn, provide sustenance for the community as this summer cheese will keep well into the winter. You have temporarily slotted into a wholesome cycle of existence that transgresses the laws of civilisations through millennia.
Bellies full and moving on, there is a change in mood as the buildings begin to thin out into sparse cabins with wood stores and stables, having cleared the most densely inhabited town and orbiting villages of the Biellese, rising into the green crook of the mountain’s neck through the night and early morning, as the landscape opens into a wilder, clearer expanse of the mountain.
The ascent is remarkable for the incredible variety and swift, palpable change in biology of montane ecosystems. Mainly due to the increase in elevation and subsequent decrease in atmospheric pressure, the climate cools significantly as you climb. The rule of thumb is that the change in climate for every 100 metres in altitude is equivalent to 80 kilometres on land to the nearest pole, so you observe a distinct and quick stratification of the mountain’s terrain. The first is a band of chestnut trees which during the autumn, traditionally provide great sustenance to the mountain folk. The nuts are kept as a staple throughout the winter and are best eaten with chestnut honey, mountain butter and finely sliced pork back-fat, cured in spices. Then silver birch, becoming more twisted and stunted with altitude, as the herd finally emerges onto the alpine grasslands at 1500m, where the trees can no longer grow. Here are the chalets and huts where the herdsmen will live with their animals for the summer made of mountain stone full of sparkling silica, that glitters in the sun.
This is it: the bursting blues, yellows and greens of the sweeping meadows of anemones and gentian, and many other plants that have adapted to the harshness of the altitude
This is it: the bursting blues, yellows and greens of the sweeping meadows of anemones and gentian, and many other plants that have adapted to the harshness of the altitude, tolerant of high ultraviolet radiation, dryness, extreme temperature variation and a very short growing season. Once arrived, the exhausted cows drink glacial spring water and rest, and still need to be milked for the afternoon.
The herdsmen walk amongst them with ancient stools tied to their backsides by a belt, so they might sit at any point to hand-milk the cows. Beneath the seat of the stool is stuck a clod of rendered fat from their pigs which, after each milking, is rubbed into the teats to create a barrier against biting flies and to keep the teats moisturised and healthy. The milk taken from the herd just after the 12 hour transhumance is dense and rich, as the animals are tired, and the first macagn cheese is made with this ‘tired milk’ richer in fat and higher in acidity,
Open pasture is the natural home of herbivores, where they are free to selectively graze sedges and lichen, grasses, herbs and flowers – over 80 different plant species for around five months. In this high pasture we can still encounter the beauty of timeless technique in husbandry, old ways where the cows are not fenced off to graze specific sites, but rather where the herdsmen throw salt over the areas they want the cows to feed from. Whilst living with the animals, the herdsmen harvest the grasses and herbs leaving them to dry, as this provides ample hay for the animals in the valley during the winter. The sun bleaches the colour from the grass as it dries into hay, giving the butter and cheese their characteristic pale, clean hue.
For me, this transhumance is a holy grail of sorts, as humans and animals make high mountain pasture their home during the summer, where the food that fuels the ascent is the cheese made from milk of that very same herd. The cheeses that emerge from this ancient tradition are the most celebrated, from Norway to Mongolia, and some are valued based on the altitude of the pasture that will still today fetch a higher price than anything produced in the valleys.
The most expensive Fontina cheese I have come across in the Aosta Valley in Italy is from a herd grazing over 2200m, where one of its cows was crowned ‘Reina’ or queen in the yearly traditional event that sees pregnant cows battle each other in seeded competitions. In the same way that Italians will still eat a horse steak for strength when they are sick, so will they glean the same qualities from the strongest cow in the region when consuming cheese from its milk, as the animal becomes part of their very being.
The knowledge of how to make the cheese itself is something that is instilled in the herdsmen, and is less about technicality but rather taps into an instinctive ability, as generationally it will have undergone countless trial and error to produce something that becomes more delicious with every batch.
It is the actual transformation of the mountain into food, without the use of chemicals, where ash-flecked curds are heated over wood fire, and tools all washed down with water from cold, glacial mountain springs or just whey, with its fermented acidity post cheese-making inhibiting pathogenic growth. In the height of summer, I have even come across hand-sculpted pats of raw, heart-stamped butter kept in a flowing stream of glacial water at 1600m altitude to keep it fresh and cool. These are the ingenious techniques of indigenous people, whose herds feed on wild pasture. Their raw milk ferments naturally with wild cultures, and is coagulated with the hand-made rennet from a desiccated calf stomach, curled into little ribbons and kept in an old biscuit tin.
And when the encroaching fingers of winter tighten their steely grip on the mountain, being too perilous to remain, the transhumance descent will lead them to the clement safety of the valley below. When the seasons change, as sure as the leaves fall from the trees, wherever I am, I think of this moment passing. In the Savoie, there is a cheesemaker I know who leaves the cheeses of her final milkings in the stone chalet, as she retreats from the glacier with her 14 cows back down into the Termignon valley, leaving her wheels of tomme to mature in the chalet, invisible and silent, completely submerged beneath the lonely white snowdrifts of the mountain, untouched and unvisited for the four darkest months. Wherever I may find myself on a winter’s day, I smile and occasionally think of these cheeses, lying inaccessible and impossibly alone beneath a blue-white snow-drift, yet somehow safe and cosy together, way up there.
The secrets of the mountains are rooted in this profound and ancient wisdom that seems sensical and pure, where the deeper you delve, the more you will find timeless practices whose fundamentals belittle the imposed legal requirements of modern industrialised food production.
Around 30th May last year when northern Italy was in full lockdown, the initial movements of the transhumance were very complicated. The issue was that there was absolutely no problem for the cows themselves to be gathering in large numbers, just the calling ahead to alert different councils to let them through. Although I wasn’t able to travel for the transhumance this year, a vestige of its influence come to pass in the birth of the new Irish cheeses I was able to help develop over lockdown, using the processes I have learned in Italy. When there is something so inextricably linked to nature, you can’t really tell it to stop.
The transhumance represents a fundamental pause, and grounding of everyone within earshot. I know that the cow’s bells serve to help the herdsmen locate the animals, but I have come to realise that today, they serve a greater purpose. It is a cacophony that can be heard for miles around, amplified by the tight streets, and the rising, resonant mountains. Anyone who hears them has this moment to pause and look up and dwell on this activity heralding summer with the ascent and winter as the cows come back down. It locates the listener in the present giving their life a richness of context as they stand between the countless times it has happened in the past, and the countless times to come. These people with their animals are locked in with nature, following the immutable seasons, and throws into question just about everything else we do in our industrialised lives.
Just like the wild Atlantic salmon that ran regardless to the River Blackwater in Ireland as part of their beguiling lifecycle, inextricably woven with the lives of indigenous Irish fifth-generation river-men Mickey, Mikey and Eamon, who still went out each tide, day and night for their best catch in 50 years, even with the policed impossibility of being told to social-distance on their tiny five-metre traditional draft-net boat. The transhumance still went ahead in the height of Italian lockdown, with anachronistic bright blue surgical masks dangling off the gnarled ears and ancient faces of herdsmen wearing cowskin jerkins, as they ascended with their herd regardless of Europe, regardless of the pandemic, caught in this swell of the mountain tide.
How to make simple lactic soft cheese
Go to your nearest dairy farm, meet the farmers and ask if they would be happy to supply you with some raw milk. If they drink their own milk raw, this is a good sign. Bring a thermos with you, or container that will hold around 1L of milk. But any quantity will do really!
If the milk is warm, fresh from the cow, put it in your thermos flask and take it home with you. If it comes from the tank at 4 degrees C, do the same, and leave the thermos out at room temperature, not the fridge. Turn it upside down a few times to redistribute the cream, which will have separated.
Keep an eye on the milk over the next few days. Open your flask and occasionally give the milk a sniff. When it starts to separate, you should detect a pleasant, sharp, yoghurty smell. Have a look inside the flask and when you see that it is separating, revealing a layer of watery whey, prepare your cheesemaking kit.
You will need a colander, a 2ft squared piece of muslin which has been cleaned in boiling water, a wooden spoon, some good salt, a teaspoon and a large stockpot.
Place the colander on the pot, with the muslin laid out over it. Pour the contents of your thermos into the colander, letting the whey drip into the pot.
After a couple of minutes when most of the when is out, lift off the colander and put to the side. Pour out your lovely acidic whey into a jar and refrigerate. You can use it to make pancakes, bread, or just drink it as was once the way.
Tie the muslin corners in a loose knot over the curdled milk. Thread the wooden spoon through the knot, lift off the colander and place this over the pot, letting the curds in the muslin hang from the top of the pot, making sure there is at least a couple of inches clearance from the bottom of the pot to the muslin.
Leave in a cool, dark place to drip away for 12 hours (overnight)
The next day, place the empty colander on some scales, and tare the weight. Lift the hanging cheese out of the the pot, and onto the colander. Remove the wooden spoon and untie the muslin, letting the corners hang out of the way, revealing the ball of white curds.
Record the weight and work out what one percent on the weight is. Multiply this number by 3, to work out what 3% is.
This will be your salt quantity.
Mix the salt through your curds with a teaspoon, taking care not to press hard through the muslin (this squeezes the cheese through the muslin, blocking the holes which you need to keep free for drainage).
When it is roughly mixed together, tie the corners up again and hang with the spoon over the pot for another 12 hours or so.
By using gravity and salt to expel moisture from the curds, your cheese should now be ready to eat! Transfer it to a container and put in the fridge. Eat on crusty bread with a drizzle of olive oil and a scratch of black pepper. If you have a lot, squish it into a jar taking care not to leave air pockets, and cover with a protective layer of olive oil. It will last for weeks.
Max Jones will be leading a group for the Italian transhumance as guide in May 2022, and runs courses in Ireland covering the processes of traditional fish preservation, as well as leading multiple workshops, talks and tastings across Europe.
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